“Omen” and the Horror of Generational Trauma [BUFF Review]

Family can be both a blessing and a curse. For every loving relative providing a window into generations past there’s a toxic family tradition that leaves you feeling trapped in expectations you don’t share. Sometimes we’re punished for the mistakes of our ancestors or pressured by obligations that dramatically change the trajectory of our own lives. It’s tempting to move away and never return. Belgian rapper and director Baloji explores these pressures in Omen, a heartbreaking story of toxic family traditions. By following the younger generations of a Congolese family, we trace back the trauma to harmful seeds planted decades ago. 

Koffi (Marc Zinga) is preparing to become a father of twins when he travels back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to visit his estranged family. In addition to reconnecting with relatives and introducing his wife Alice (Lucie Debay), Koffi intends to pay a dowry and ask permission to give his twins sacred family names. He arrives to immediate scorn and we learn that he’s essentially been cast out due to superstition beliefs. Even worse, his own parents refuse interaction, completely negating the point of the trip. It’s only his sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire) who will talk to him perhaps because she too feels ostracized from the family. Meanwhile a trans teen named Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya) struggles to survive on the streets while grieving the recent death of his younger sister. As these stories intertwine, Koffi, Tshala, and Paco learn the value of unconditional love and the price of breaking away from familial expectations. 

The film begins with a woman expressing breast milk into a shallow desert stream, nourishing the earth rather than a child. This is followed by Koffi nervously shaving his westernized afro for a look he hopes will please his conservative family. Despite this sacrifice – he’s been growing it out for five years – they immediately complain about his disrespectful appearance. It seems Koffi has been marked as a child and can do nothing to break the “curse” of his existence. These two scenes perfectly introduce a story in which the rigid expectations of generations past serve to ruin the lives of future offspring. Both Koffi and Tshala must move away from their families to find love and acceptance. It’s not until the final act when we circle back to Koffi’s mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) that we learn the horrifying truth at the heart of the family’s estrangement. 

While poignant and touching, these stories feel a bit disconnected. Baloji immerses us in Congolese culture with beautiful details and authentic life, but this often comes at the expense of narrative coherence. Paco’s storyline feels particularly disconnected. The theme of mother’s milk permeates through the film and Baloji seems to be exploring the cost of denying effective parenting. However, connecting details emerge too late and it’s sometimes difficult to follow the narrative thread. Rather than a succinct story, Omen feels more like snapshots of interconnected trauma working its way through the generations. 

While there are issues with an overstuffed plot, gorgeous visuals and outstanding performances more than carry the day. Zinga is fantastic as a nervous father-to-be desperately trying to connect with his own parents. Umuhire is also endearing as his younger sister struggling to win similar approval. But it’s Gnahoua who steals the show as Koffi’s distant mother. She wears a perpetual scowl and refuses to acknowledge her son and his new wife. It’s only when she’s faced with her similar ostracization that she reveals the true reason for her distant relationship with her firstborn child.

Omen may not tell a linear story, but it does show a powerful depiction of generational trauma. Koffi and Tshala are liberated children doing their best to escape outdated religious traditions and stifling familial lore. Paco’s story feels thematically connected as the results of leaving a troubled home and trying to make it in the world alone. Despite the narrative jumble, Baloji has woven together a beautiful and heartfelt story of four lives damaged by a toxic family system. The most horrific “omen” is not the auspicious circumstances of Koffi’s birth, but the lack of available love from a mother to a child. 

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.